Colleen Bowler - Where Painting and Pottery Collide

‘I could talk all day about the ceramics world!’ Colleen Bowler laughs when Craft Editions met her at her studio in Castlegregory, Co. Kerry. ‘I can also rant a lot about the art world, but don’t print that…’ And so we spent a fascinating couple of hours discussing craft and being shown a variety of Colleen’s work as well as her 2 kilns.

Colleen originally trained as a painter but has been working for over 30 years making pots. Perhaps this partly explains why she is constantly thinking, exploring and re-evaluating the role of her work and its place in the craft world. ‘I’m a potter working at the art end of the craft spectrum,’ she concludes. She claims that her craft skills are basic but serve her needs, drawing our attention to the fact that her artistic passion translates into the exquisite beauty with which she decorates her plates, pots and vases.

All Colleen’s pieces start with drawings; she keeps all her old sketchbooks even going back to the 1980s. She sketches constantly and tries to find the time to spend a month each year purely focusing on drawing. She is inspired by the world around her, particularly what she collects on the beach. ‘It might be anything… shells, seaweed or fish bones.’ At Craft Editions we particularly admired the detailed way she decorates her ceramics. Colleen describes her pots as ‘heavy’ and says she aspires to make them physically a little lighter. The feel of her work is very earthy and her intricate designs explore the surfaces of the plates and pots in an organic way.

Colleen works at a potter’s wheel throwing in white stoneware and grogged crank. A white slip is then applied and after that she draws on each piece by scratching a design with a tool; this might be a traditional etching tool or even a hypodermic needle ‘if I’m feeling manic!’ She then paints with a copper oxide or celadon glaze, depending on whether she wants a red, green or blue/grey colour. However, the process continues to be a journey of discovery for Colleen with every set she fires. The naturally inconsistent reduction process in the kiln means that she doesn’t always get what she expects. This means that some colours come out well and others don’t. In her gently self-analytical tone she comments ‘The trouble with pottery is that you have to make so much. If you’re drawing and you don’t like it you can throw it away but with pottery you’ve got to make another pot. You end up making a lot of stuff that you don’t like.’ Ultimately the pottery that has passed Colleen’s own critical gaze is truly special.

Although she has been making and selling pottery for over 30 years, Colleen only went full time in 2010. In having this single focus she has noticed her work evolve and all of her skills have improved; her throwing is getting quicker and she can now throw much bigger pieces. She admits that when she first started working with clay she had to learn to use the full dimensions of the pot, because as a painter you only work on the front! She learned to work on the back of and underneath the piece too. It’s a joy to discover each of her ceramics because the design is never the same, the decoration might be on the outside or the inside, or grow and creep from one surface to another. Coming from a painting background means she feels much more at home on the large open spaces of her big plates and these are the items that she has had the most fun with.

Colleen has chosen to draw on pottery because she believes the form makes the art more accessible. She is keenly aware though that many people working with clay call themselves ‘ceramists’ in order to avoid being plunged into the cutthroat world of fine art. ‘If it’s sculpture it has to be judged as art, you have to put it out there and let people tear it apart. But if it’s craft they’re not subject to that in the same way.’ She doesn’t see this as a problem, she is simply aware that craft rarely receives the curation and critical evaluation that fine art does. One benefit is that the craft world on the whole is a positive space where makers can develop their skills. Craft Editions found Colleen’s engagement and passion for craft as a discipline to be wonderfully refreshing. As well as continuing to develop her own work she has a dream, ‘In the craft world there’s an awful lot of good work that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. If I won the lotto the first thing I’d do is set up a Fine Craft gallery!’

Find out more about Colleen Bowler here.

All images by Craft Editions.



Brian Waring